It’s always a source of pride when Israeli achievers are selected for international awards. Poet Agi Mishol was mentioned in last Friday’s Grapevine and, regrettably, stage and screen actor Sasson Gabai was overlooked.
Gabai, who is currently starring in the Broadway production of The Band’s Visit, was this month the recipient of a Pomegranate Lifetime Achievement Award for Stage and Screen, conferred on him at the 22nd NY Sephardic Jewish Film Festival.
Members of the cast and producer Orin Wolf, along with various dignitaries and diplomats, attended the award ceremony, which was moderated by the festival’s producer, David Serero.
There are no free lunches – especially in New York, and Gabai had to submit to a Q&A in return for the honor bestowed on him.
The Pomegranate Award, sculpted by Iraqi-born Israeli artist Oded Halahmy, was dedicated in memory of actress, writer and filmmaker Ronit Elkabetz, who costarred with Gabai in the original movie of The Band’s Visit, and was herself a recipient of the Pomegranate Award in 2012. Elkabetz died of cancer in April 2016. Gabai, like Halahmy, was born in Iraq.
The award ceremony included the US premiere screening of the Israeli TV series Stockholm, starring Gabai, and directed by Daniel Syrkin. The plot is about a renowned economist who is found dead in his bed. His friends decide to hide his death for five days, in order to allow him to win the coveted Nobel Prize in Economics. Determined to retain some integrity for their friend, while also gaining, by proxy, some notoriety for themselves, their plan threatens to unravel in a nail-biting, hysterical, thoughtful production and an all-star cast, which in addition to Gabai includes Doval’e Glickman, Gidi Gov and Tiki Dayan.
The festival is an ongoing project of the American Sephardi Federation. ASF hosts high-profile events and exhibitions, produces widely read online (Sephardi World Weekly and Sephardi Ideas Monthly) and print (The Sephardi Report) publications, supports research, scholarship, the Institute of Jewish Experience, and the National Sephardic Library & Archives. It also represents the Sephardi voice in diplomatic and Jewish communal affairs as a member of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and World Jewish Congress.
■ THE YEAR 2019 will go down in history as the year in which people with disabilities and special needs will no longer be cast to the fringes of society, but will be respected for their abilities, rather than be rejected or mistreated because of their disabilities. The change in attitude cannot be perceived as waving a magic wand over all humanity. There are still problems in getting children with special needs accepted into regular classes, and those with extra-special needs in schools that are reasonably close to home. But, on the whole, things are better, rather than getting worse, and adults with physical disabilities are being employed in regular jobs, partially because, in a hi-tech digital era, they don’t have to move around a lot. So long as they can see and can operate a keyboard, being confined to a wheelchair is no longer an obstacle to employment.
But the best and most inspiring example of learning to overcome disabilities is in Israel’s Paralympic team, which always comes home with a bunch of medals from world championship competitions and the Paralympics. In fact, it is way ahead of Israel’s Olympic teams in scoring gold, silver and bronze medals.
Among the most outstanding of these athletes are wheelchair tennis player Noam Gershony, sharpshooter Doron Shaziri, swimmers Inbal Pizaro, Ron Boloti, Uri Bergman, Erel Halevi and Itzhak Mamisvalov, and rower and wheelchair basketball star Moran Samuel. There are scores of other great athletes who are disabled in one way or another, but that doesn’t deter them from competing and winning in sports.
One of the youngest runners in last Friday’s Jerusalem Marathon was expected to be nine-year-old Aviel Abrahamoff, who three years ago, almost lost one of his legs when hit by a car while walking with parents on a family outing. He was seriously injured, and the surgery on his leg was so complicated that the surgeon told his parents that he might stop in the middle of the operation to get their permission to amputate. The wait was a nightmare for the parents, but fortunately the operation was a success.
It didn’t mean that Aviel could get out of bed and walk a few days later; it was a long time before he could walk. He spent months in Jerusalem’s Alyn Orthopedic Hospital and Rehabilitation Center, and when he finally stood on the injured leg, it was so painful that he could barely maintain his balance. But Alyn has a policy of encouraging its young patients to try just a little harder. It wasn’t good enough for Aviel to eventually be able to walk. He had to run. He was encouraged to join Alyn’s running team, and in a short time he was the best runner. Even after his discharge from the hospital and his return home, he kept going to Alyn to train with the team.
In the marathon, he was expected to run 5 kilometers. That’s pretty good for anyone his age, but particularly so for someone who nearly lost a leg. The injured leg will never be quite the same as the other one, and when he’s old enough Aviel may qualify for the Paralympics, but he may not want to, because he’s already proved himself to himself.
The government never makes enough money available to support Israeli athletic teams, and if these athletes bring glory to Israel, it’s because they have been helped by private donors to reach to their potential.
The Dan Hotel chain, for instance, is the patron of the Israeli Paralympic team that will be competing in Tokyo in 2020. This is the fourth consecutive Paralympics team since Beijing, London and Rio de Janeiro that the Dan chain is helping out. Last week, the various not-for-profit organizations that support the Paralympic team were hosted at the Dan Panorama hotel in Tel Aviv. Paralympic athletes who were on hand were gold medalist Gershony, world champion rower Samuel, wheelchair dancer Vital Zinger and sharpshooter Shaziri.
■ WELL KNOWN in Israel and the United States for advocating the rights of people with disabilities and promoting their inclusion in mainstream society, the Boston-headquartered Ruderman Family Foundation, through its Link20, together with Koolulam, organized a mega event at the Menora Mivtachim Arena in Tel Aviv, which brought together 8,000 people with and without disabilities. Actually, they all had disabilities, because, to quote Nechama Rivlin, the wife of Israel’s president, everyone has a disability of some kind. There were also politicians among those present, who included Labor MK Nachman Shai, who is unlikely to retain his Knesset seat, and former IDF chiefs of staff Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, together with Pnina Tamnu-Shata, of the Blue and White Party, who were seen hobnobbing with Shira and Jay Ruderman.
■ HIS LATE father, shipping magnate Sami Ofer, who was an exceedingly generous philanthropist, obviously bequeathed this trait to his son Eyal, currently listed as the wealthiest Israeli. Through the Eyal and Marilyn Ofer Family Foundation, which supports education, culture and art initiatives worldwide, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art is able to undergo a comprehensive renovation of what for many years was known as the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art, located in Culture Square. The pavilion was established 60 years ago with support from the Helena Rubinstein Foundation, which ceased its operations in 2011. Thanks to a $5 million gift from the Ofer Family Foundation, the sorely needed renovation can be undertaken, and the pavilion will in future be known as the Eyal Ofer Building for the Arts.
There’s a certain degree of revenge in the project. In 2005, the Tel Aviv Museum wanted to build a new wing and approached Sami Ofer, who was willing to donate $20 million on condition that the museum be renamed the Sami Ofer Museum. There was hot opposition from the museum board and from significant donors. The upshot was that Sami Ofer channeled his money to another cause. Now his son is getting his name on a museum project for only a quarter of the money that was offered by the firstname.lastname@example.org
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